I Almost Lost My Kids Because I Couldn't Stop Drinking And Cheating

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I Almost Lost My Kid Because I Couldn't Stop Drinking And Cheating
Heartbreak

Thanksgiving week of 1997 I was a couple weeks short of thirty-three, technically unemployed, eleven months sober and had been recently served with divorce papers.

I had finally made it out of my week-to-week furnished studio hovel and into a two-bedroom apartment. Each morning I sat in my bay window with a view of the State House in the distance, watching the sunrise over Boston. On Friday nights, my three-year-old daughter, Grace, and one-year-old son, James, came over. James always ended up in bed with me, his head nuzzled into my neck, while his sister slept in the bunk beds across the hall.

While still in my twenties, I had tasted the fast lane.

I managed to sneak my way into a senior job at a major media company by wearing impeccable blue suits, white shirts and black polished shoes, by speaking only when spoken to, and by keeping cool under the pressure of large and vexing financial transactions. I took the company public after decades of near-obsessive privacy, only to play a pivotal role in selling it for billions of dollars ninety days later. I went ahead despite the cries of outrage by the community, who saw the initial public offering (IPO) and quick sale as the abandonment of a public trust. My crowning achievement, being quoted on the front page of The Wall Street Journal, was crushed a few days later.

It was a Saturday, and I was hungover from our closing dinner — barely able to open my eyes as I tried in vain to watch the kids. I fell back asleep on the couch in our family room. My wife Erin was tired of my shit. The sale of my company had finally been announced; I may have been king of the financial world, but to her it was time for me to start acting like a father. She flew upstairs and rifled through my bag from my overnight stay after the dinner. Finding a package of contraceptives inside, she came downstairs to confront me.

"I know you're having an affair. Why don't you just admit it?"

I tried to deny it, as I had any number of times before, but this time she would not relent. The barrel of the revolver poked the roof of my mouth. I wrapped my forefinger around the cold metal of the trigger. She continued to press harder and harder for an answer. I squeezed off one clean shot: I told her the truth. There was terror in her eyes. She took a moment to collect herself — looking down — the tsunami brewing. Then she exploded, "Get out of this house, now!"

As she screamed, trembling with anger, I couldn't even hear the words she was saying. The courage I'd had while taking my company public flew out of me. My feelings for my young girlfriend drained from my body as the barrage continued. My head hung in the shame that Erin's words exposed in a final dagger to the heart:

"You're not the big shot deal maker you think you are. You're a cheat and a drunk! Leave and don't come back. Don't even think about seeing your kids again. You have given up that right!"

Ten minutes later my green Saab 9-3 sat in an empty church parking lot just outside town.

The sun was out, but I was cold. Like a person approaching death, I saw my body from the outside, watching quivering hands, rapid breath, and wet cheeks. I couldn't get my perspective back inside my body.

I gripped my cell phone in my right hand waiting for it to ring. My father was unreachable in Mexico, hoping to not get shot by rebels as he tried to provide relief to the poorest of the poor. My mother was away at a conference. My phone finally rang. I answered it, snapping back into my body, feeling the moisture on my face for the first time.

"Mom, I'm physically okay. No one has been hurt. But I've got a very big problem."

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Through gritted teeth, I told her. I was outside my body again looking down at the Saab from above, waiting for my mother's response. She was stunned. I heard frustration in her voice; she was mostly worried about my safety. As we talked, there was a microscopic relaxation of the terror in my chest. I forgot for a second where I was and what was going on. Then it all came back to me, opening fresh wounds. When I hung up, I had no idea what to do next.

I turned the ignition on and started driving. My brother and his wife owned a condominium and two children close in age to my own. I stood outside their front door, my face still wet, desperate for human contact. My brother answered the door. Two years my elder, he and I had fought and competed in the past. But I lurched forward then, in desperate need of support. I held onto him for dear life.

"Matt, what the hell happened?" he asked.

I started to tell him. Each time I repeated what Erin has said about my never seeing my kids again, I sobbed hysterically.

"I can't take it. What have I done?" I told him I had no place to stay and only the clothes on my back. He reassured me that I could spend the night. After several hours of this conversation, he went to the kitchen to make a phone call. He talked to our sister in a whisper. I strained to overhear him say to her, "Do you think he is suicidal? What signs should I look for?"

My sister-in-law finally made my bed on the living room coach. Before turning in, she went to the kitchen and carefully took all the sharp knives and locked them in the basement. She pocketed the key before coming to say goodnight.

My drinking had been out of control for years. At business school, I fell asleep behind the wheel of my girlfriend's car on the Massachusetts Turnpike. The car flipped. I woke up going full-speed down the highway, upside down, waiting to see if I would live or die. Amazingly, I escaped with no major injuries, only scrapes. The state police officer who arrived on the scene took one look at me standing next to the wreck, shaken but in one piece.

"Son, you're one lucky bastard!" he said. "I have seen more than one Escort flip but have never seen anyone walk away alive. I don't like pulling dead bodies out of a wreck, so how about being more careful?" The car was totaled except for the six-pack of Sam Adams Summer Ale bottles I had in the back seat. They — ironically — had not shattered.

A month after moving from my brother's place into my dumpy studio, I went to our large family Thanksgiving carrying the shame of my now public infidelity.

My paternal grandmother, a spiritual woman then in her eighties, took me aside.

"There is good stuff in you, Matt. I have seen it," she told me. "It is not how you fall that counts in life, but how you pick yourself up."

I tried unsuccessfully to stop drinking. I spent Christmas without my children. The pain of missing them sent me off on a bender in New York City. The next morning I woke up on a friend's couch, smelling of beer and cigarettes. I got up bone-tired and sick to my stomach—mental flashes from the previous night darkening my mood.

Looking in the mirror I heard my grandmother's words. I heard the tone of my own mother's voice when I called to tell her the details of my failure as a husband. Then I pictured my children: my baby boy with a gentle nature and his high-spirited toddler sister. I realized they didn't deserve the fate that my actions had set in motion. They didn't deserve to not have a father. Killing myself that was one thing, but ruining their lives was quite another.

James didn't understand that I had moved out. His calm temperament never changed. But in his eyes, I could tell that he was soaking up every detail of the chaos. Grace was constantly moving, literally jumping out of her skin. She asked why I was never at breakfast anymore, and why I couldn't play with her at "her house." My answers didn't seem to penetrate her brain.

I began putting James to bed at his mother's house before heading to my own. I wanted to be close to him. For all my talk about fatherhood, I hadn't done much until then. One night, I bathed James, changed his diaper and zipped him carefully into his one piece pajamas. I could hear his slow and steady breath as he sucked on a bottle in my arms. I touched my lips to his soft cheek. I hummed a few bars of "Amazing Grace," a song I remember hearing my father sing to me as a child. I looked at my beautiful baby boy in his dimly lit nursery and saw him for the first time.

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As fall arrived, I sat alone in my apartment, looking pensively out at the world below as I contemplated the need to take action to get my life back on track. I had finally gotten sober. But not drinking for eleven months didn't help me figure out what to do with day after empty day.

I had made some foolish investments in everything from bug-zapping machines to snow boards as a way to pass the time, but a college friend had recently introduced me to an internet firm started by a couple of software wizards. It appeared to have real promise. When I met the founder and front man, we chatted casually about technology I knew nothing about. His shoulder-length hair was pulled back in a pony tail, and he wore a satin shirt, unbuttoned a bit too low.

Hat in hand, I approached my soon-to-be ex-wife and asked permission to invest.

She agreed to a modest amount, less than I asked for, so long as the dollars came out of my side of the ledger in the final divorce settlement. The company was a breath away from certain death. Payroll had been repeatedly delayed. Employees had grown weary of broken promises. But my gut told me this might be a good gamble. Besides I felt I had so little to lose it didn't really matter if it worked out. My life couldn't get worse.

I sat in my bay window explaining the deal to my largest potential investor over the phone. My pitch was the anti-pitch. I didn't consciously understand what I was doing or why, yet here I was talking to an investor who wanted to do my deal. Once he agreed, I quickly went about nailing down commitments from the rest of my group.

My new venture fit nicely into the new persona I was cultivating: "Scooter Boy," as my friends affectionately called it. I threw away the blue suits and white starched shirts, and bought Italian slacks and the wildest colored shirts I could find. I replaced my brief case with a purse. I bought Gucci loafers to replace my old black lace-ups. I started wearing thick, black-rimmed Clark Kent glasses. I got up in the morning, had my coffee and meditated as the sun rose over the city. Then I got dressed in my new trendy clothes and carried my newly purchased scooter to the street. I set off for morning Alcoholics Anonymous meetings with abandon, flying down Newbury Street, my man bag flapping on the handlebars. I am sure I looked crazy—a grown man on a child's toy—but I didn't care. The ride was a key element of my new life.

I took the kids to mommy classes. I sat in a circle with moms and their kids. We sang, wrestled and goofed around. I was comfortable in this setting because I actually got to do something with my kids. As we rolled around on the floor, the moms at first didn't know what to make of me; they ultimately accepted me when they saw how passionately I played with my kids and theirs.

By Thanksgiving 1998, the first anniversary of my new investment, the company was on a roll. We were attracting new customers in waves. On Wall Street, the Internet gold rush had begun as every Amazon doubter had been promptly run over by Internet stock prices stampeding for the moon. Everything you could attach a ".com" to was headed for an initial public offering, we planned our own for the spring.

Around the same time, I found myself sitting in a chair constructed for an eight year old, surrounded by thirty other men at a grade school classroom in South Boston. There was a halfway house across the street. Many of the men were part of that program, sober less than thirty days. I noticed the tough guy looks of some of the participants: tattoos, body piercings, plenty of white-guy-mobster gold chains. I felt like the only one without a gang affiliation in the room.

Frank, one of the leaders, began to tell his story from the front of the room. He talked about jail and hookers and drugs; family members who were dead after overdoses or shot during drug deals. The words came straight from his heart. There was no intellectual head game involved. Listening to him talk made me stop feeling sorry for myself in a hurry. I had a penthouse apartment and two healthy children. I had drank because of an inferiority complex. I had been a bad husband, absent father and ultimately got caught having an affair. But I had a roof over my head and plenty to be grateful for.

To get at the root causes of our alcoholism, Frank asked each of us to get a notebook and start writing.

First about the symptoms of our disease, then about our conception of God, and finally to inventory our behavior to date. It was time to stop conning myself. Several weeks later, I was struggling and asked Frank to meet me for a quick dinner before the meeting. We ordered fish and chips at a fry joint. Sitting at a scratched Formica booth, graffiti scrawled across the table, our food arrived just as I started to complain about my ex-wife. He brought me up short. "I thought you told me you cheated on her, Matt?"

"Yeah, so what? She is still a complete nag, accusing me of being a bad father," I snapped back.

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"Well, that was not right. Plain and simple."

"Yeah, but... "

"No buts about it, pal. Let that sink into your brain."

I thought to myself, "Why the hell am I taking advice from an ex-con who was just last week talking about cruising hookers," but pushed the thought away. I tried to listen to what he was saying.

"The only way you are going to get over messing up is to admit that you did. Stop denying it. You made a mistake. A big one," Frank continued. We ate our fried food for a while, shooting the shit about sports. As we finished up, I came back around.

"Maybe you're right," I admitted. "I can't seem to get over feeling crappy about being a cheat, which causes me to do all kinds of insanely stupid things to cover up the past. I just keep making the same mistake over again in the present."

"Bingo! Let's go help some sick people who have a hell of a lot more to worry about than you do," Frank yelled as he got up to pay the bill and slapped me on the back.

By the week of Thanksgiving 1999, two years after making our original investment, my Internet company was selling more stock to the public in a secondary offering.

The insiders agreed to sell a small percentage of our holdings. That week I was on a retreat in Vermont, staying at a bed and breakfast with just one phone line. I huddled in an upstairs hallway, the phone receiver pinned to my sweaty ear as I listened to music, on hold for the secondary pricing call. My right leg jumped uncontrollably, causing the old wooden chair supporting my large frame to creak noisily.

Finally, I heard a series of clicks as the founders, the rest of the board, and various advisors joined the call. When I heard the price — over one hundred times our cost basis — all the twitching and huffing stopped. I couldn't believe that in three business days several million dollars would be wired to me. I still owned stock worth, on paper, many multiples of that number.

In the weeks that followed, greed and fear dominated my life. The market capitalization of my little turn-around project was over a billion dollars. I wanted to sell every last share of my stock immediately, but was restricted from doing so by the initial public offering "lock-up." Buyers of an IPO want reassurance that faint-hearted insiders aren't going to dump their shares and tank the stock. So insiders are forced to legally bind themselves to a six month waiting period as a precondition of any IPO. I still had several more months to wait until my remaining shares would not become freely tradable, which made me tremendously nervous. Many a hedge fund trader had made a killing by shorting a stock like ours. I was sure that our stock would take a massive hit the day it finally became liquid, it was just a matter of how massive.

On a cold winter morning, icy and raw, I got to work early to shut myself in my office to find out the fate of my stock. I wanted to face my destiny alone. I tried to tell myself that the money already in the bank was life-changing. As I sat and stared at my computer screen in silence, I resisted the temptation to call my broker and tell him to sell the whole damn lot. After an agonizing twenty minute delay, I saw first trade of the day clear. I couldn't believe my eyes. The volume was enormous, and the stock had traded up! Arms over head, I shouted with the animalistic sounds of redemption.

Over the next six months, I methodically sold everything, clearing over $30 million.

I paid my ex-wife her third. The stock kept going. Better to be a little early to the exit than a little late, I told myself.

Wealth, of course, wasn't the answer. In the past, I'd tried to plaster over my problems with riches. The voices of doubt inside my head laughed at each of these futile attempts at a quick fix, grabbing me by the balls for a lesson in humility. It took staying sober, continuing to try to be a good father, and finding the right woman to make me happy.

I met Noelle when I was five and a half years sober. We were set up on a blind date by a mutual friend. I suggested lunch in a safe location, so either one of us could bolt. I waited for her outside at a nice cafe on a sunny spring day. She was well dressed, tall, blond, and gorgeous. Her warmth immediately set me at ease. She pulled on my sweater playfully as we left.

I was careful not to call right away. But I did eventually and she agreed to dinner. In the weeks that followed, I was careful not to call too often. We met once a week and continued to get to know each other. I began to see that, like me, Noelle came to our relationship after real-life challenges.

She had lost a husband less than two years into marriage. She was the first person in her large family to go to graduate school and had spent several years in court litigating cases. I was attracted to her street smarts as well as her huge heart. I could tell that along with her outer beauty, this woman had inner strength that I could count on, even with my most precious possessions: Grace and James.

Six years to the day after my last drink, Noelle and I exchanged vows by candlelight, as snow fell gently in the dark.

A tenor belted out "Ave Maria." Grace, eight years old, was so excited she kept standing on Noelle's dress. James rang the church bell at the end of the service. Dad gave a heartfelt toast, acknowledging the distance that Noelle and I had each traveled to get to that day. Fittingly, inside my wedding band Noelle had inscribed "To the moon and back," a line from the children's book Guess How Much I Love You.

Three and a half years after marrying Noelle — on a sunny summer morning — our 18-month-old son, Timothy, woke me up early to play. I followed him out the back door and into the field overlooking the Atlantic Ocean behind the summer home Noelle and I had built. Osprey circled up high and then dive straight down, splashing into the water in search of breakfast.

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We sat on chairs in the sand that afternoon. The sun, the waves, my beautiful wife and three happy children sank into my heart, producing the blissful sensation of belonging; a feeling far better than the fleeting high of booze, deal-making or illicit sex. Finally I didn't have to wait for my lies to catch up with me. I was aware of the people that I had hurt terribly along the way. The pain and suffering was not something I would ever want to go through again; having made it to the other side — to that beach surrounded by the family that I adored — I saw how every step was required to find my way home.

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